The Boston Weekly Messenger attacks Gerrymandering

[Elkanah Tisdale?], The Weekly Messenger [with maps of Worcester and Essex Counties relating to the 1812 redistricting of Massachusetts.] Boston: James Cutler, March 6, 1812.
Tabloid newspaper, [4]pp, large woodcut. Gently toned, mild foxing and soiling, and a bit of edge wear. Leaves separated along the centerfold.

A scarce 1812 issue of the Boston Weekly Messenger, with a front-page attack on the blatantly partisan gerrymandering of Massachusetts recently signed into law by Governor Gerry.

In early 1812 Massachusetts Republicans engineered a radical redistricting of their state, designed to disadvantage the Federalist majority in the upcoming state senatorial elections.  It did so by dispersing Federalist voters into minorities distributed across multiple Senate districts, while concentrating Republicans into majorities where possible. The General Court duly passed the enabling act, which was signed into law on February 12 by Republican Governor Elbridge Gerry. The legislation was a great success for its backers: later that year 50,164 Republican voters elected 29 of their own as Senators, while 51,766 Federalists managed a mere 11. However, the law was also sufficiently unpopular that Gerry was voted out of office… though he landed on his feet, being elected as James Madison’s Vice President. (“February 11, 1812[:] “Gerrymander” Born in Massachusetts” on the massmoments web site)

Offered here is the March 6, 1812 number of the Federalist-leaning Weekly Messenger, with a multi-page attack on the redistricting. The attack begins with front-page persuasive maps of Worcester and Essex Counties, executed in woodcut with inset letterpress (together 8.5”h x 12.5”w including border). The maps show the counties divided into their respective towns, with dotted lines indicating the tortured boundaries of the new-minted electoral districts. It is worth noting that these maps are among the earliest separate maps of any Massachusetts county, preceded only by a map of Worcester Co. in Peter Whitney’s History of the County of Worcester (1793).

The accompanying text rather ingeniously employs aspersions on the geographical asymmetry of the districts as an ad hominem argument against the redistricting:

“The above representation has been procured to show… in what mode the present ruling party have dissected the Commonwealth ; not ‘carved it as a dish fit for the Gods,’ but ‘hewn it as a carcase fit for hounds.’”

The writer then goes on to make a more reasoned case for the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the practice:

“If such should be the result, these counties, containing an immense federal [i.e., Federalist] majority of more than two thousand eight hundred electors, would exhibit the strange spectacle of being represented by four federalists and five democrats [i.e., Republicans, also known at the time as ‘Democrat-Republicans.’]”

On viewing a map of the redistricted Essex County, one wag—possibly the painter Gilbert Stuart—combined the governor’s name with that of the mythical beast, and so the “Gerry-mander” was born. The first depiction of the beast—one of the most enduring images and concepts in American political history—probably appeared in the Boston Gazette of March 26.  It consists of a map of one of the two new districts in Essex County, with the constituent towns shown in outline, ornamented by fearsome jaws, and claws and a demonic-looking set of wings.

A scarce American newspaper, with interesting persuasive maps attacking the now-infamous and widespread practice of electoral gerrymandering.

Murrell, A History of American Graphic Humor, pp. 54-60 (illus. p. 65). Phillip Lee Phillips Society Newsletter, Winter 2001- Fall 2002, p. 20 (illus. p. 18). Stauffer, American Engravers on Copper and Steel provides biographical information (I:272-273) as well as a list of Tisdale’s engravings (II:535-539, but not including The Gerrymander).